Analysis of Barnsley's 4-4 draw at MK Dons. The Reds, already sure of a play-off place, went 4-1 down to the relegation battlers before fighting back. James Norwood and Max Watters scored twice each.
‘DEAD RUBBER’ FOR REDS BECOMES MEMORABLE 8-GOAL DRAW
WITH fans in fancy dress in the stands, it was hard to tell what Barnsley came dressed as for the first 70 minutes - certainly not the team that has charged into promotion contention.
But their remarkable comeback in the last 20 turned this dead rubber, from a Reds perspective, into a memorable thriller.
The last time the Reds drew 4-4 was in 2002 against a Portsmouth side which included Dave Beasant, Robert Prosinecki and Peter Crouch.
The last time they came back from three goals down was at Leicester in 1991 in the Zenith Data Systems Cup.
They maintained their record of not losing this season when scoring first despite crumbling at 1-0 up and allowing MK to become the first season to come from behind to lead against them. They also collected a third point from a losing position this year and almost came from behind themselves to win for the first time.
While Barnsley were confirmed in fourth by results elsewhere, the draw left MK only outside the relegation zone on goal difference, winless in seven and with just four wins at home all season which is the fewest in the EFL.
They looked like taking a huge stride towards safety at 4-1 up, with fans of their fellow relegation-battlers furious with Barnsley on social media, but their end-of-season lap of honour was more of a stunned stagger to a smattering of applause.
Their manager Mark Jackson had a one-game loan spell at Barnsley but also played for Huddersfield in their 7-1 loss at Oakwell in 1998. He will now have harrowing memories of another eight-goal clash with the Reds.
GREAT AWAY SUPPORT THIS SEASON
The Reds fans have witnessed ten away league wins, compared to one last season, and given consistently good support while travelling thousands of miles in a very southern division.
They have seen a rare victory at Hillsborough, late wins at Middesbrough, in the cup, Fleetwood and Wycombe and thrashings of Gloucester clubs Cheltenham and Forest Green.
More than 2,000 of them turned up to Stadium MK, dressed in various outfits including some chickens, bananas and a Donald Trump.
It may have been treble that number had the top two been on the line, as Stadium MK’s allocation of away tickets is one of the most generous in the league due to its size and their fairly small home crowds.
The Reds faithful had been hoping this would be the final away game of the season but they will have to go to Bolton or Derby then, hopefully, Wembley.
The Reds are still yet to win a league game at MK Dons but the supporters will certainly remember this trip.
It was another disappointing result on the road after dropping important points recently at Exeter, Burton and Lincoln but this was a different type of game given the circumstances.
REDS VERY POOR FOR 70 MINUTES
For two thirds of the game, this was a strong candidate for Barnsley’s worst performance of the season.
They were lucky to lead at the break with a deflected goal against the run of play, then conceded four times in a dire 20-minute spell at the start of the second half.
Duff called it ‘20 minutes of madness’ and suggested his side thought they had the win sewn up at the break.
The Reds were without some of their star players, while there was always going to naturally be a drop off after the play-offs were confirmed with two league games left.
They conceded from a set piece for a second successive game - both near post headers off right-wing corners - after doing so just twice in the previous 43.
For 70 minutes, they were generally sluggish and disjointed as a team, with too many players underperforming. The third goal summed it up as Paris Maghoma was allowed to run well into the Reds half with no real tackles.
A clean sheet would have seen Barnsley equal a club record of 19 goals conceded set in the 1978/79 season by Allan Clarke’s promotion-bound side.
They began the match with the division’s best defensive record on the road but finished but with the fourth best.
They have conceded as many goals in last two as in the previous 14.
TEAM CHANGES WITH MIXED RESULTS
It was always a thankless task to pick a team for this game - make several changes and that will be blamed for any slip-ups or make too few and be accused of risking needless injuries.
Duff made four changes from the side that lost to Ipswich four days earlier.
Captain Mads Andersen missed out on a 46-start league season due to an injury to a stomach muscle, replaced by Robbie Cundy with Liam Kitching standing in as captain.
Cundy - starting for the first time since the 3-0 defeats to Bolton and Derby in early January - was used on the right of the back three with Bobby Thomas moving into Andersen’s usual position in the middle. There were some mix-ups between the defence who struggled with MK’s top-scorer and £1.5million record signing Mo Eisa and the dangerous Jonathan Leko.
Cundy - although not solely to blame - was taken off at 3-1 for Barry Cotter with Jordan Williams going into back three.
Luca Connell and Adam Phillips were left out due to more minor issues of illness and a blow to the calf respectively. Devante Cole also did not feature for the first time this season, staying on the bench - and on 99 Reds appearances - to keep him fresh, in an indication of Barnsley’s priorities.
Jon Russell was also benched with Luke Thomas, Josh Benson and Slobodan Tedic coming in.
Benson - on his first start since January 14 at Charlton - and Herbie Kane played in a central midfield two with the Luke Thomas behind the strikers. Thomas was lively and always looking to make something happen but, with one less man in the centre, the Reds didn’t seem to have as much control in midfield as in their usual 3-5-2. Tedic had some good touches early on but only made 12 in total in one of his least effective recent appearances.
Norwood took his goals tally to an impressive 12 for the season despite not being at his best.
Both strikers lacked service from a side who did not get into their usual rhythm.
SUPERB WATTERS INSPIRES COMEBACK
At 4-1 down, a dead rubber ‘free hit’ was in danger of becoming a humiliation for the Reds - and a message to their promotion rivals that they are vulnerable.
But, although there were plenty of problems with the performance, the character and determination shown late on was testament to the team’s attitude and mentality. They technically had ‘nothing to play for’ but were still going for the win after salvaging some pride at 4-4.
The main catalyst was sensational substitute Max Watters.
The striker had been on the pitch for 12 minutes - and seen his side concede a fourth - when he brilliantly assisted Norwood for 4-2. Two minutes later he volleyed in a fine goal for 4-3 and, ten minutes after that, netted a leveller which meant he doubled his tally for the season in this game.
It was easily the best performance of a loan which had previously brought two goals from 17 appearances, although only five were starts.
Watters - who spent the first half of last season on loan at MK, netting seven goals in 14 matches - looked physically-imposing, pacy, fired-up and a major nuisance for defenders. If he can reproduce that excellent performance in the play-offs, admittedly against better opponents, he could make a big impact on Barnsley’s promotion hopes. He has surely earned at least a start against Peterborough in the last league game.
Other replacements also impressed as Russell beefed up the midfield and passed well while Oli Shaw and Cotter got some rare minutes.
As well as the impact of the substitutes, the comeback also came from starting players suddenly raising their levels significantly.
For the first two thirds of the game, Liam Kitching had been notable for his poor passing and struggling to get to grips with MK’s pacy attackers. But he began the moves for the final three goals with surging runs out of defence, having also played a part in the opener.
Joining Kitching in causing chaos on the left was Herbie Kane who - although his passing accuracy was higher than 90 per cent for the third game in a row - had also not hit his usual high standards. But suddenly at 4-1 he was terrorising the home defence, helping to set up the second and third goals.